With the Cubs and White Sox playing each other in Chicago and in AA Tennessee, it seems like a great time to check in on the White Sox farm system and their rebuilding process.
Once the laughing stock of the minor leagues (seriously, I have distinct memories of Kevin Goldstein laughing about how bad the system was), the Sox have really improved throughout the organization. The Sox possess a mid-tier system nowadays, stocked with high-ceiling athletes and players with good chances to contribute at the major league level.
Today, we'll be talking with Larry of SouthSideSox, SB Nation's only high-quality Chicago baseball site. Larry has compiled SSS's White Sox Top Prospect posts, and has an incredible depth of knowledge regarding the White Sox system. You can follow him on Twitter at @SouthSidelarry.
Tommy: In light of the many moves Rick Hahn has made to acquire "now" talent for the Sox, a number of Cubs fans have been more vocal about their displeasure with the state of the Cubs' choice to chase higher-ceiling, high-risk talent. How do you and other Sox fans feel about how Hahn has gone about the rebuilding process?
Larry: Fans have been pretty happy so far. Last season obviously was really bad and the fact that the team is at least competitive this season is a plus. The reasonable best case scenario for 2014 was a .500-ish team and they've performed to that so far. The offense was awful last season so the significant steps Hahn took to revamp the offense were key. Jose Abreu has exceeded expectations so far and looks like he could be a legitimate star. Adam Eaton, when he's played, has been the leadoff hitter and center fielder the White Sox have lacked for almost a decade. Losing Avisail Garcia for the season was disappointing but there's just been a ton of bright spots.
T: This "now" talent rebuilding route also seems to have obscured what, to me, looks like amazing progress within the White Sox farm system. How do you feel about this system compared to, say, even two seasons ago?
L: The system is in a lot better shape, probably the best shape it's been in a decade or more. In the past, the White Sox have done a good job of developing or acquiring young pitching but basically couldn't produce a position player. The situation is reversed quite a bit, as position players are abundant - particularly in the middle infield - but the pitching seems to be lacking.
T: To what do you attribute the prospect gains within the system? Certainly, drafting higher in the first round has helped, but have you noticed any specific changes in the types of players Rick Hahn & Co. are targeting in the draft?
L: I think it's a culmination of a philosophical change that began 5 or 6 years ago. For a while, the White Sox took "safe" college pitchers with their top pick and those guys didn't amount to anything. They've looked more for high ceiling "athletes" in recent years. That's a higher risk strategy but also higher reward. We'll see if that pays off over the next few seasons. Something that will start having an impact, probably this year, on rankings is a re-focus on Latin American amateurs.
After the Dave Wilder bonus-skimming scandal, the White Sox basically withdrew from the region. The hiring of Marco Paddy and the allocation of more significant resources to signings has seen the White Sox get quite a few players, Micker Adolfo chief among them. The guys signed in the last three years will probably start appearing on top 30 lists - and maybe top 10 lists - this year. It's hard to be anything more than a bottom half farm system if you're not signing Latin American players and just relying on the draft.
T: Since Theo and Jed took over for the Cubs, fans have noticed an increase in walk rates and an emphasis on defense within the Cubs system. Have you noticed any specific organizational changes that Rick Hahn has tried to instill in his prospects?
L: On the offensive side, not really. The new hitting coach, Todd Steverson, seems to have as part of his job coordinating an organization-wide philosophy (to the extent that's possible with hitters of different types) but that's still in its early stages. Pitching, on the other hand, has had Don Cooper leading that for a long, long time now. This sounds somewhat trite but throwing strikes has always been an emphasis. Not walking guys and letting your defense work for you is paramount. And guys who can't do that, like Hector Santiago, don't last long. In that vein, inducing ground balls has also become even more noticeable as an emphasis the last couple years.
T: White Sox 2012 1st-Round pick, Courtney Hawkins, is off to a blistering start this season in High A. Is he beginning to make the necessary adjustments to once again make a name for himself in the prospect community?
L: He's changed his setup a bit and that seems to have helped him. High-A was just too aggressive an assignment for him last season. But aggressive assignments are, unfortunately, a typical thing the White Sox do, almost always with poor results. Hawkins is still something like the 7th-youngest player in the Carolina League this season and I think there was an overreaction to his poor season in 2013 in the prospect rankings.
We didn't learn anything about him in 2013 that we didn't know already. It just was made far more obvious by being completely over-matched by a league too advanced for him. There's a lot of swing-and-miss in his game and whether he can recognize breaking balls will be the key to whether he's a major leaguer or not.
T: As the Crosstown Classic drags on this week, the AA version of this rivalry will be heating up in Tennessee, as the Birmingham Barons have a five game series with the Tennessee Smokies. What can you tell us about the current stars on that Barons roster, Rangel Rovello and Micah Johnson?
L: Ravelo seems like he's been around forever but he's just a 22-year-old in Double-A. Great contact hitter, good idea of the strike zone. Unfortunately, he's defensively limited to first base. So he needs to develop more power. Birmingham's home park is a terrible place to hit home runs. I think his power can be good enough to be a decent major league first baseman but he's not really in a great place to develop that skill.
Johnson is just ridiculous right now. I've questioned the hit tool but he's making me look stupid now. I don't think he will stick in the infield because he just doesn't have the hands but if he puts up anywhere near the offensive numbers he has so far, his skillset will play in the outfield no problem. Excellent speed.
T: Is there hope yet for Trayce Thompson?
L: Thompson has been a favorite of mine but I've had to accept that he's probably a fourth outfielder. He plays great defense in center, so that's what will get him to the majors, probably this season. He just doesn't make enough contact. Like Ravelo, his power potential is limited in Birmingham's home park, so I think there's more power than his production shows on the stat line. But I don't think he's a major league regular. Good defense, good speed, some pop, can take a walk. That's a good guy to have as a 4th outfielder.
T: What have you heard about Class-A Kannapolis righty Tyler Danish? He's just 19 and he's putting up great numbers, but that delivery may be the ugliest I've ever seen.
L: Danish is awesome, I like him a lot. I think the White Sox can make him a starting pitcher, given the success they've had in the past with guys with similar deliveries. He's a ground ball machine and absolutely murders right-handed hitters. That's a solid profile for major league success. As you say, he's 19 and his focus this year is on getting innings. We'll see if he has the stamina and ability to repeat his mechanics that are necessary to be a starter. Barring injury (which is sort of a big caveat, of course, with pitchers), he looks like he has the skill set to at least be a high leverage reliever.
T: Final question: The White Sox edged out the Cubs in the suck column last year, and will be picking one spot in front of the Cubs in the 2014 MLB Draft. The history of the Cubs and White Sox picking next to each other is quite interesting - in 1988, the Cubs selected one spot ahead of the Sox, taking Ty Griffin instead of Robin Ventura. One season later, the White Sox picked Frank Thomas 7th overall, and the Cubs were left to take Earl Cunningham with the 8th overall pick. This is a deep draft, but Cubs fans are hoping for a reversal of roles from the 1988 draft, but all fear that another 1989 draft may be take place. Who are the White Sox looking at with the third overall pick, and why will they become a superstar while the Cubs' pick never gets out of A ball?
L: They're looking at pitching. As I mentioned before, it's an organizational need but that's not why they'll draft one. It's just that there's no team that ever has enough pitching. And the reason he'll be a superstar and the Cubs pick won't is simply because the gods don't like the Cubs.
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Filed under: Minor League News